May 18, 2016

Dear friends,

Tony is home! With a serious case of jet lag! I know it’s serious because he is too tired to eat. A bowl of spaghetti sits untouched in the refrigerator.

“My favorite,” he moaned sleepily when I placed it in front of him Sunday at about 6 p.m. That would be 7 a.m. Japan time. He conked out before the first forkful.

Tony arrived bearing gifts. The aunts sent me really cool T-shirts, purses and handcrafts. His cousins and high school buddies sent food, and his dear mother sent me all of her jewelry. I wish I could be with her. But I’m here, still cooking for just myself until Tony snaps out of it.

Mostly I’ve been making simple things like scrambled eggs and sandwiches. That changed when I found fresh, sweet cherries for $1.99 a pound. They were part of a sale celebrating the grand re-opening of the remodeled Acme No. 1 in West Akron. The store is modern and inviting, and it was packed with bargains last weekend.

Two dollars a pound is probably as low as these seasonal treasures are likely to go. I’ve seen cherries elsewhere, though, at $3 to $4 a pound -– unusual for this time of year. Cherries usually aren’t that inexpensive until supplies peak around the Fourth of July.

Most of our cherries come from Michigan and Washington State in late June and early July. The early cherries are coming from California, which must have a bumper crop this year.

I know just what to do with them. I like the idea of tossing pitted cherries into a salad with smoked turkey and salty feta cheese, or pureeing some and freezing in alternating layers with vanilla yogurt in ice pop molds. I will probably get around to those projects when I recover from my dried-cherry experiment.

Because I was able to afford a few pounds of cherries, I thought I would dry some. I like the idea of controlling the moisture level, producing half-dried cherries (like my half-dried tomatoes) to freeze and add bursts of flavor to my breakfast yogurt next winter. They’d be great in muffins, too.

I found two ways of drying cherries: In the microwave and in the oven. I tried both, but first I had to pit the dang things. Do not believe Internet advice to punch out the pits with a chopstick. The cherry is placed atop the neck of an empty wine bottle and the chopstick is plunged into its fleshy midsection, pushing the pit through the fruit and into the wine bottle below. Surrrre. I tried this with several empty narrow-necked bottles, including a wine bottle, and punched my medium sized cherries without exception into the bottles, pits and all. I punched gently, I stabbed wickedly; the result was the same.

The second Internet-touted method, which I’ve used before, is to insert a paper clip into the cherry and drag out the pit. I must have lost either patience or dexterity (maybe both) as I aged because I HATED fishing around with that paper clip. By the time I captured the pit, my hands were a sticky pink and the cherry was a pulpy mess. I did not attempt cherry number two.

I finally resorted to a paring knife, slicing each cherry in half and digging out the pit with the knife tip. I could pit 18 cherries in 5 minutes, enough to fill a 11-by-17-inch baking sheet. Not bad, but I recommend you go buy a cherry pitter.

In an 1100-watt microwave, the cherry halves dried in 17 minutes on the defrost setting. The cherries were pitted and placed directly on the clean glass turntable, cut sides up, about 1 inch apart. If you go this route, start checking after 10 minutes, keeping in mind that the fruit dries more as it sits.

In an oven set to 200 degrees, the cherry halves dried to my taste in 1 1/2 hours. They were concentrated and wrinkled but still slightly juicy. If you want fully dried fruit leather-type cherries, increase the time to 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The halves were placed cut sides down 1 1/2 inches apart on a foil-lined baking sheet. Tip: When you take the cherries from the oven, slide them, still on the foil, onto a counter and loosen them with the side of a fork. Then cool and eat or freeze.

My conclusion is that that microwave is a bad way to dry cherries. It’s easy to turn them into burnt little disks, even using the defrost setting. A couple of my thinner cherries became cherry chips.

Also, unless you remove the cherry halves from the glass turntable immediately, you’ll have to saw them off with a serrated knife. Then you must soak the turntable a long time and probably scrape it with a spatula to remove the dried cherry residue.

The oven-drying method was a lark in comparison. But why bother at all? Because half- or almost-dried cherries taste amazing compared to the over-sweetened commercial kind.

My half-dried cherries should taste especially good in a batch of coconut drop biscuits. The recipe is from James Villas’ excellent little cookbook, “Biscuit Bliss.” Villas writes that he likes to serve the “rather dainty” biscuits with coffee after an elaborate dinner.

cherry(0).jpg

COCONUT-CHERRY DROP BISCUITS
3/4 cup frozen unsweetened flaked coconut
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. chilled vegetable shortening
1 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup dried or 1/2 cup half-dried sweet cherries

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread the frozen coconut on a large baking sheet and toast, stirring often, until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool.

Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Grease the same baking sheet and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the coconut, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients along with the cherries. Stir just until the dough is very soft and still slightly wet.

Drop the dough by scant tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake at 425 degrees in the upper third of the oven until golden, about 12 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes about 20 biscuits.

From “Biscuit Bliss” by James Villas.

HELP U COOK

It’s hard to remember which foods freeze poorly so here, in one place, is a list:

Sour cream becomes thin and watery.

Mayonnaise separates.

Cream cheese develops a watery texture.

Cooked egg whites become rubbery.

Icings made with egg whites become foamy.

Custard pie fillings become watery or lumpy.

Raw egg yolks thicken.

Heavy cream won’t whip but may be used in cooking.
Cooked grains and pastas soften.

Fruits and vegetables with a high water content become limp.

Many seasonings change in flavor, to wit: Onions, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper intensify in flavor; salt, thyme, rosemary, dill, sage and basil pale in flavor.

THE MAILBAG
From Isabel T.:
I think it was last year that you had a recipe for an asparagus tart with slices of lemon. I made it once and can’t find the recipe.

Dear Isabel: That was my take on an asparagus and lemon version of tarte tatin. Asparagus spears and sautéed lemon slices are arranged in a skillet over a butter mixture, covered with puff pastry and baked. When done, the tart is inverted onto a serving plate to show off the asparagus and lemon. Wedges of the warm tart are a lovely spring side dish. Thanks for reminding me of this recipe.

UPSIDE-DOWN ASPARAGUS-LEMON TART
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry
1 firm lemon, sliced thin
14 to 16 spears asparagus, cut 4-inches long (tip end only)
1 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. sugar

Thaw pastry according to package directions. Slice lemon and cut and wash asparagus. Place an 8-inch oven-safe skillet over medium heat. When hot, add oil and butter. After butter melts, sprinkle sugar evenly in skillet. Arrange as many lemon slices as will fit in skillet in a single layer. Cook, turning once, until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove from skillet with tongs.

Remove skillet from heat. Arrange asparagus spears in a spoke pattern in the skillet, with the tips the center. Place lemon slices in a pattern on top of the asparagus.

Unbend puff pastry sheet and roll briefly with a floured rolling pin to remove creases. Use a 9- or 10-inch round cake pan as a guide to cut pastry in a circle. Place pastry circle over asparagus and lemon slices in pan, tucking edges down along the insides.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, until pastry is cooked through and starts to turn golden. Remove from oven and immediately invert onto a plate. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
From Annie:
Hey Jane, I got my peas and onions in early but it is taking longer to get more garden tilled up for the potatoes and fava beans.  I grew most of my own tomato and pepper plants this year and they are ready when Mother Nature is ready to let me put them in.

Every year I plan to go to Crown Point to the heirloom plant sale.  I haven’t been able to get there yet and am planning to go come heck or high water this year.  Do you have the specifics yet?

Dear Annie: I hear you. As I write this (Monday), my basil and eggplant seedlings are covered with plastic cottage cheese containers to ward off the frost. I was hoping to enjoy corn before the Fourth this year when I saw farmers planting in April, but now I doubt it.

Crown Point Ecology Center’s organic plant sale at its farm in Bath began last weekend but has expanded from two days to many more this year. The details are at http://crownpt.org/annual-organic-plant-sale/.
From Lin in France:

You want to know about new-to-me plants? Well, last year I grew a “pigment de oiseau” in a pot on my terrace. These are the tiny peppers you typically find in the spicy oil you drizzle on pizza. Then I strung them on a length of yarn and dried them in the kitchen. This spring I went to a plant fair and talked with a fellow who grows hundreds of different varieties of peppers and asked him what he would recommend and he sold me two: Kashmiri and Varigata. They will also have to tough it out in the pot and with limited sun on my terrace…we’ll see how they work out.

Dear Lin: You have a whole slew of European heirlooms to try. What fun!

From Isabelle Gordon:
In my recent move I lost your buckwheat cakes recipe, one that Tony liked that I think came from a restaurant.  It was like the recipe that I grew up with.  I’m not sure how my request works but I would love to be able to find the recipe.  Thanks in advance.

Dear Isabelle: Unfortunately, I don’t have a searchable database yet. That recipe was from way back when Tony and I met, I think. That would make it 2006. Does anyone have this recipe?

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